Joe O’Leary: The Nicene Creed in interreligious perspective

Joe O’Leary is giving a talk based on his article on the Nicene Creed in the Japan Mission Journal, abbreviated to 12 points. (Post updated 8 April 2024.)


1. Necessity of such a perspective to save the Creed from ecclesiastical narrowness.

2. Buddhist meditation on the status and function of religious language (skillful means, conventional truth, critique of “attachment to views”) helps us find a skillful and critical way of praying the Creed.

3. The Creed as naming of ultimate realities: God and the Son as “God from God,” to be compared with namings of the ultimate in Judaism and Islam, Buddhism and Vedanta.

4. The Creed as utterance and enactment of Faith — faith not to be fixated on the dogmatic points but to be opened to the wider concert of faith-utterances in other religions.

5. The object of that faith: the coming of God into the world in order to save, a mythic vision found in varied forms in many religions. Broaden our conception of God’s creative and redemptive action.

6. Study of doctrinal development climaxing in the Creed and continuing beyond that in the Arian Controversy up to 381, and further beyond, as the focus shifts from Trinity to Christology.

7. Study of the process by which the phenomenology of revelatory event, reflected in the writings of Paul and John, is overtaken by the shaping influence of Greek metaphysics. A similar progress from event to scholasticism in Buddhism, and the resistance to that process in radical steps back to the originary event in Mahāyāna Buddhism. The innovative regime of thought marked by Nicaea can be seen as breaking with the subordinationism of the early church and with the Platonism that fitted it, and embarking on a new Christian thinking more independent of the surrounding metaphysical milieu. The reception of Nicaea demands an ongoing process of hermeneutics and assessment, as if the Creed (and especially its most controversial term homoousios) were a kind of kõan such as we often stumble on in our attempt to critically retrieve our doctrinal history.

8. Not to exaggerate the metaphysical quality of the last layer of the Creed’s account of Christ’s eternal nature, the phrases ek tes ousias and homoousios. These legal/metaphysical-sounding terms have a pragmatic purpose within the confessional and doxological performance of the Creed; Homoousios may mean no more than “of the same kind of stuff as.” Nonetheless a touch of metaphysical Hellenization is in the air, given the unbiblical character of the terms, the rich history of ousia in philosophical Greek, and especially the urge to define ultimate realities.

9. So a syncretism of Athens and Jerusalem is now manifested no longer just in the thinking of theologians such as Origen, but at the highest level of church utterance. Forced by Arian objections the Church is reluctantly driven to adopt new philosophical diction and arguments, which can be seen as producing a magnificent “work of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel” (Harnack). Comparable syncretism in other religious traditions.

10. “The Gospel” is represented proximately in this case by John 1:1-18, the foundation of Trinitarian thought, such that the Creed can even be seen as an exegesis of the Johannine text (with a consequent straitjacketing of Johannine exegesis for long afterward, John’s contemplative utterances being milked for their dogmatic and metaphysical interest).

11. Some interreligious thinkers take up the anti-Nicene attitudes expressed throughout the ages (in Unitarianism for example, or in those who see the Constantinian turn as betraying the Gospel). They may argue that the creed imposes a controlling grid on the life of faith, and reflects a clutching at false metaphysical certitude and solidity (substance) rather than the authentic openness of faith. The best defense against this attitude is to reroot the Creed in the event of salvation to which it intends to bear witness. The Creed can be practiced as a contemplative event, a prayer, in constant mindfulness of the presence of the God and the Christ it proclaims.

12. This freed-up, flexible set of attitudes to the Creed (even among those who embrace it in faith) makes thinking about the heritage of Trinitarian dogma an open-ended intellectual adventure that may attract those struggling with comparable hermeneutical tasks in other religious traditions, making us colleagues with them in the widest task of interpreting religious classics in the horizons of the contemporary world. If the texture of this broad interreligious space is apprehended in terms of Buddhist emptiness the events evoked in the Creed come into focus in an unexpected way.

(Ed’s note: This post was updated on Mon 8 April 2024.)

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One Comment

  1. Peadar O' Callaghan says:

    Joe, your post on the Creed has led me to look up again some of James Heisig’s places on-line – what a great scholar and philosopher linking east and west spirituality and thought.
    In her analysis of St. Patrick’s Confessio and Epistola in her book ‘PATRICK the Pilgrim and Apostle of Ireland’ (1998), Máire B. de Paor, PBVM gives the text of ‘his’ Creed, based she says on Romans 8: 16-17. It is incredibly beautiful and Trinitarian, and I often wonder was it the original Creed of the Irish church in its faith journey from Celtic beliefs to Christian and the ‘symbolum’ Patrick passed on when he baptized ‘so many thousands of people.’
    de Paor (for whom I had the privilege of ‘writing’ the image/icon on the cover of her ‘Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin – File agus Diagaire c. 1715-1795’, 2005) discusses possible influences on this Creed. I do not know of anyone who has studied this. An tAth. Uinseann Ó Maidίn, OCSO, of Mount Melleray, is a great loss in these matters.

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